Global Champagne Day Taittinger Technical Tasting @ Alloy Restaurant

21 10 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Happy (belated) Global Champagne Day! There is probably no better way than a champagne tasting to shake off what has become a considerable amount of wine writing rust. Tasting bubbles, bantering with a few friends, listening to a knowledgeable and engaging speaker — good for the soul. As usual I arrive at the restaurant too early, a neurosis that rarely extends to other important engagements in my life but one that seems omnipresent where wine events are concerned. I simply do not want to miss anything. Right away there is a glass of Cuvee Brut Reserve NV (non-vintage) in my hand, Taittinger’s entry level offering, and at this point I do not mind waiting. IMG_2148Taittinger’s Mikael Falkman comes highly recommended, although on this occasion he seems more inclined to let these majestic wines speak for themselves. He does come to life near the end of the tasting with an exuberant blend of knowledge and humour.  Mikael makes sure to provide a concise history of this famed house, but I particularly appreciate his expositions of the Taittinger family’s winemaking philosophy. I will provide these gems and nuggets along with my tasting notes for each wine.

Champagne Taittinger Brut Reserve NV (~$67)

Perhaps more than any other champagne house, Taittinger seeks to epitomize elegance and precision. Nothing boorish or klutzy is permitted, not even for a second, although such finesse is still balanced with complexity and an appropriate richness on the palate. Mikael explains that Taittinger is the last great house where the family named on the label still actually runs the enterprise, with Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger serving as president, his son Clovis as export director, and daughter Vitalie (pictured above) providing artistic vision. Things were not always this rosy. Taittinger was sold to an American firm in 2005, and not long thereafter concerns about quality began to proliferate. Pierre-Emmanuel began a dogged buy-back campaign, and with some help he was successful, with the family building up its stake in its eponymous company to around half. Much of the remainder is in the hands of trusted friends. Taittinger is now the sixth largest of the champagne houses, yet quality is rightfully front and centre, with a recent emphasis on natural viticulture and a vinification process predicated on careful attention to detail. As explained in Tyson Stelzer’s comprehensive “Champagne Guide”, only the first pressing of the grapes is used in the prestige cuvees. This juice also constitutes around 90% of the entry level bottlings. As Deputy General Manager Damien Le Suere explains, “too much of the tailles (last pressings) in the blend makes them too strong and mature, but we want to produce very fine and accurate wines” (cited in Stelzer, 2017).

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Now its a party!

Taittinger is a Chardonnay-oriented house, according to Mikael. The Brut Reserve is 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier. Most of the Chardonnay is sourced from the vaunted Cotes des Blancs subregion. This wine is always prepared first, with other cuvees produced only if the vintage is conducive. I start scribbling tasting notes: light bread dough with a pat of butter, sour cream, lemon and orange peels, fresh white peaches, green apples and pears, almonds, cashews, old cassia bark chips, perfumed orris root/lilies, white gummy bears. A flash-bang of acid followed by a lemon drop finish like creeping, spreading citric magma. More autolytic character than expected in a NV cuvee, presumably due to this house’s tendency to age on lees much longer than required by law (in this case, 3.5 years!). That being said, this remains vibrant, fresh, and fruit-forward. If this is the hedonistic beginning, God help me as the end approaches.

91 points

Champagne Taittinger Cuvee Prelude Grand Crus Brut NV (~$103)

This one is composed of 50% Chardonnay/50% Pinot Noir, with the former from three grand cru vineyards in the Cote des Blancs and the latter hailing from three more grand crus in this black grape’s Champagne stronghold, the Montagne de Reims. The house includes those grand crus particularly known for finesse, elegance, and a delicate character in its Prelude bottling. At this point Mikael tells us a “secret”, which (hopefully) I can share here: Prelude is actually a VINTAGE cuvee, despite what the label says. That’s right, all the grapes in here hail from one vintage year. This is a 2012. For “marketing reasons”, the house wants to sell this wine as an NV. Alright then. Shhhhh.

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2012

Without professing to fully understand this marketing-based reasoning, I will say that this wine is fantastic. I take a whiff and get hit with chalky limestone and silty riverbed, wet gravel followed by lemon rind and pith, and then an unfurling of limes, apples and pears (both green and yellow), underripe pineapple, even a little resinous tropical guava. Consistent with this unexpected island vibe, the autolytic characters cleave quite closely to banana bread along with the more expected sourdough, and toss in a pinch of nutmeg as the Pinot provides a strawberry creme Hail Mary. The finish is again long, but precisely pointy as opposed to spreading like with the Brut Reserve. At this point we get food pairings courtesy of Alloy’s kitchen staff. The lemon cream accompaniment to the steelhead trout coaxes a custard-like creamy note from the wine, in most pleasant fashion. I’m still putting the pieces together, most of which carry the stamp “elegant refreshing precision”, with a few outliers registering as “gaudy fruit”. Rest assured, though, the pieces fit together.

93 points

Champagne Taittinger Cuvee Brut Prestige Rose NV (~$103)

Full disclosure: I adore rosé Champagne. As soon as this is poured I tuck into it like a thirsty man in the desert, and then I catch myself, cognizant of the fact that this is a “technical” tasting and I still have things to do later this day. This particular pink Champagne has garnered a reputation as fragrant, subtle, and compelling, yet with an underlying power. The blend is 45% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Meunier, with 15% of the blend consisting of Pinot Noir still wine from Ambonnay, Bouzy, and Les Riceys. Mikael mentions that such Pinot wines are appellation-worthy in their own right, although the house has recently beefed up the proportion of Chardonnay in the blend. The mission continues.

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Some fine tannin structure.

My mission here is to write a description, and I go searching the codex for aromas and flavours. I get the expected strawberry and red cherry lollipop, raspberry canes. Blood oranges, savoury pink peppercorns, delicate lilies. I’m wondering if this classy lily and orange rind signature I’m getting across all these wines is a minor house calling card of sorts. Lemon and lime are to be expected from cool climate Chardonnay, but orange? It turns out that crus such as Oger can deliver such a note (as can Pinot Noir). More idiosyncratically, in any good rosé champagne I taste BBQ potato chips. That’s right. Perhaps “paprika” or “pepper pods” or “adobo sauce” might be more mainstream descriptions (or not), but darned if BBQ chips doesn’t speak to me on a more personal level. Such associations make wine tasting all the more worthwhile. The complexity here is more on par with the Brut Reserve than the Prelude, as one might expect. Over time I get more stone fruit in the form of peaches, red plums, and greengages, which as the name might suggest are green plums that taste sublimely rich when ripe. Here the pairing is a goat cheese and raspberry salad, with the earthy greens and radish pairing better than the sweet berries, the goat cheese fitting somewhere in between. When it comes to food pairings, structural properties of the wine are more important than perceived flavour congruencies. In any event, bring on the big guns.

90 points

Champagne Taittinger  Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006 (~$280)

We have arrived. Comtes is Taittinger’s flagship and justifies its reputation as one of the finest blanc de blancs (made from 100% Chardonnay). The Cote de Blancs grapes are sourced mainly from in and around the villages of Avize (elegance and finesse) and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (body and a subtle reductive note that some compared to grilled bread), with additional contributions from Oger (the aforementioned citrus), Chouilly (roundness), Cramant (almonds), Vertus, and Burgeres-les-Vertus. These same villages are used for every vintage. Five percent of the wine is aged for four months in oak barrels, one-third new and the remainder up to four years old. Mikael is careful to note that “Taittinger is not an oak-loving house”, with the wood treatment here focused solely on accentuating notes of toast and brioche in the Chardonnay’s otherwise delicate frame.

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Can drink now, but no pressure.

I immediately notice the minerality on the nose, the same chalky limestone and gypsum that I got with the Prelude. Makes sense, as we are dealing with grapes from the same subregion and many of the same villages. However, the flinty, smoky notes are far more pronounced, and there is an initial undercurrent like sesame seeds and buttered popcorn that eventually blossoms into full-blown toasty brioche. Sublime, particularly as that lovely sesame impression lingers, a unique fingerprint for this bottle in a land of various buttered breads. I often use a simple notation in my notes, from one to three “+” signs, as a rough way of indicating the potency of individual notes. Here I have green figs (+++), nectarines (++), white peaches (+), tangerine (+), nougat (++), hazelnut (+), lemon meringue pie (++), sea salt (+), and then some quaint diagram to the tune of “lemon, lime >>>> quince”, which I’ll translate here as “wow, there is a whole array of fruits from citrus to stone to pome”. The scallop ceviche pairing should work great on paper but admittedly I’m not paying much attention to the food at this moment. Although that prominent fig character points towards the age of this bottle as well as the rather warm vintage, the whole package still tastes staggeringly fresh. This may never die! Hyperbole, of course, but this mighty titan hewn from the chalk beds of the Cote de Blancs should be tasted to be believed.

94 points

Champagne Taittinger  Comtes de Champagne Rose 2006 (~$336)

Recall that the most elegant grand cru grapes wind up in the Prelude and the Comtes Blanc de Blancs. Well, here is where the grand cru ingredients better known for their power wind up. (Also recall my aforementioned love affair with rosé Champagne.) The Comtes de Champagne Rosé is 70% Pinot Noir (including 12% still red wine from Bouzy), 30% Chardonnay from four grand cru villages, and no oak, making up only 5-10% of the production of the entire Comtes de Champagne allotment. This is the most decadent (and pricy) bottle at this tasting and for me a dream come true.

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Be patient.

My immediate association involves savoury herb-infused shortbread drizzled with copious amounts of cooked raspberry, cherry, and strawberry sauces. There is a whole bunch of garrigue herbs such as lavender and thyme, dried roses and desiccated cranberries, pomegranates, goji, even some darker Saskatoon berry reduction to complement the red stuff, whiffs of forest floor and smoked ham and yes, again, BBQ chips. Lest things get overly savoury, I get a dollop of whipped cream and crumbled Pop Tarts in the long, long finish. That classy minerality is also lurking, this time recalling copper pipes caked with lime. An interesting guava emulsion with the chicken breast provides a nice foil. I’m left with the impression that this behemoth is only just beginning to unleash its power, with the signature house elegance better developed and currently on full display. Apparently Tyson Stelzer agrees. Cellar it.

94 points

Champagne Taittinger  Nocturne City Lights Sec NV (~$75)

Time for dessert. I’m going to be opinionated once more and state that I do not care for overly confected, concocted Champagne on ice overwrought with garnishes. I mean, why? If that’s your jam, by all means, crush it and revel in the hedonism. I do get hedonism, believe me. My beef here is that ice dilutes fine wine, and pungent accompaniments are going to obfuscate anything at all subtle in the glass. I’m here to taste, and hallelujah, there is no cocktail or contraption that looks like it was manufactured by Hasbro but rather a glass of nothing but…wine. The Taittinger Nocturne is actually the same exact blend as the Brut Reserve, just aged for an additional year and sweetened with a dosage of 17.5 grams per litre. This is at the very bottom end of the sweetness limit for a Sec bottling, which can be dosed up to 32 g/L while still retaining the “dry” designation.

Sure enough, there is little in the way of perceptible residual sweetness in here. What I do get is a surprisingly robust minerality on the nose, some hazelnuts and Honeycombs cereal lest we forget that this is supposed to be a sweet(ish) champagne, and yet another novel revelation in the form of Asian herbs(!); I’m getting lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf along with the citrus rind and green apples. I’ve have another. No ice.

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Don’t laugh … This is tame compared to the prior packaging, which was usually compared to a purple disco ball. Rest assured, this one still glows under black light.

90 points

As I leave the restaurant I reflect. Currently my favourite Champagne houses are Lamandier-Bernier and Bollinger. I am struck by how this array of six bottles represents a monolithic distillation of house style, and yet all six wines remain wholly distinctive from one other. After this in-depth analysis, a reshuffling of the favourite Champagne deck might just be in order.

Dedication: This one is for JPL, an elegant soul herself. Sorry it was so hard much of the time. I miss you buddy. You never told me that you read my wine writing, but I know you did, and I’m pretty sure you liked it.  

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